After he ran away at the age of twelve or thirteen, to see Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Luckner signed on to a Russian sailing ship. When he fell overboard he was rescued after he managed to grab a circling albatross and hold on to the bird long enough for a lifeboat from his ship to retrieve him. This was only the beginning of his adventures at sea.
Luckner’s fame today comes from his position as the captain of the SMS Seeadler. The Seeadler was a three-master windjammer, assigned by the Imperial German Navy to be a commerce raider in 1916 during World War I.
Disguised as a Norwegian ship and fitted out with two hidden 8.8cm guns and several machine guns, as well as concealed auxiliary diesel engines, von Luckner and the Seeadler went on a remarkable voyage during 1916 and 1917. He and his crew narrowly escaped discovery by the British, eluded capture numerous times, withstood a hurricane, and captured 16 ships totaling 30,099 tons.
In the end the Seeadler was struck by a tsunami while anchored off the Society Islands, lifted onto a reef, and wrecked. Von Luckner and five of his men headed for Fiji and ultimately, after a 3,700 km voyage in an open boat, reached Wakaya Island where they were arrested by local authorities and sent to a P.O.W. camp on an island off of New Zealand.
Not exactly one to accept fate, von Luckner did manage to stage an escape from the camp using a hand-made sextant and a map copied from a school atlas. Unfortunately for him, the authorities had guessed his destination and picked him up, finally bringing his wartime career to an end.